top of page

Une politisation feutrée

Hauts fonctionnaires et immigration en France
A socio-history of a domination from a distance

pano 4.jpg

This book, published in 2009, is based on my thesis defended in 2006 at EHESS. It highlights the extent to which social activity carried out by agents in one "place" on the social chessboard can have consequences at the other end of a chain of interdependencies.

Where other works have highlighted the role played by the State's intermediary agents in the administration of foreigners, or the importance of local configurations in the municipal management of arrangements for immigrant workers, this book sets out to propose another point of view on immigration. It invites us to think in relational terms about "the processes by which the State contributes to the production of society" and the often-obscured effects of "the interdependence of social worlds".It aims to bridge the gap between, on the one hand, a body of sociological and historical literature in which immigration appears as a public problem linked to the emergence of the welfare state and the legal divide between nationals and foreigners, and, on the other, a body of work on the "summits of the state", which describes senior civil servants as actors situated at the interface between political actors who see themselves as representatives of the "French people" and an administration legitimizing its action "in the name of the national interest".

Drawing on ministerial and private archives, as well as on some sixty interviews with senior civil servants from the period, I describe the role of senior civil servants in the lasting repoliticization of this issue at the end of the Thirty Glorious Years.

Download Introduction

How the State produces an "immigration problem".

The 1930s saw a re-politicization of migration issues through parliamentary channels. The National Assembly saw deputies mobilize on behalf of their constituents and call for restrictive measures (the first Secretary of State for Immigration, Antoine Serres, was himself a former deputy). My book argues that the 1970s saw a re-politicization of migration issues by the state.

Under the Fifth Republic, senior civil servants played a decisive role in the formulation of issues likely to be taken up by politicians. By emphasizing the role played by these agents at the hinge between the political arena and government departments, a number of studies conducted in the wake of Jacques Lagroye have been able to move beyond a dichotomous perspective on public action.

On both sides of the boundary between political and administrative space, senior civil servants play the role of gatekeepers. More than mere "relays" between "public policy pundits" and politicians, senior civil servants transcribe the minister's wishes into "technical" and "administrative" language, but above all, for our purposes here, are able to "produce policy".


Choosing what is worthy of being brought to the attention of the Minister and what does not require the latter's arbitration, they are in a position to "sound the alarm" and encourage government players to invest in certain issues. By separating the issues that need to be "escalated" from those that can be dealt with by central government departments, they make a decisive selection and make a major contribution to social life by facilitating or preventing the politicization of certain issues.

Transposed to the issue of immigration, this analysis raises the question - often overlooked - of the role of the highest levels of government in a process that is generally attributed solely to the instrumentalization of this theme in the political arena, and to the rise of the Front National.

To what extent has the issue of "immigration" been one of those that has been "brought to the attention of the minister", by what means and since when?

My book defends the idea that, from the 1960s onwards, the structure of the field of senior administration in charge of immigration changed and politicized this issue. At the crossroads of decolonization, the enarchization of the Ministry of Social Affairs, and the rise of a managerial and liberal frame of reference in the Ministry of Finance, immigration was taken higher and higher up the administrative hierarchy, as a "sensitive" issue.

In a field that pits the agents of the "embedded" ministries (Interior and Labor) against the agents of the generalist ministries (Quai d'Orsay and Finance), the issue of migration is becoming politicized and "ascendant", as the latter agents impose new constraints on the Interior and the Ministry of Labor from outside this sector of public action, in a context of recomposition of the French state and transformation of the French economy.

& the "Stop" policy
foyer au taudis.jpg

One of the book's challenges is also to understand how political and administrative representatives adjust their discourse on immigration to suit their audience.

This is particularly evident when we look at the 1974 decision to "close the borders" in response to the economic crisis. Focusing on the senior civil service, this decision appears to be the product of profound transformations in the state apparatus, which placed certain state agents in a position to defend the idea of "necessary" control of migratory flows as early as the end of the 1960s. It was only in a second phase that the July 1974 decision (a measure that followed other similar ones) was legitimized publicly and by the media, in the name of the "economic crisis" and at the end of a process of universalization of particular interests. Finally, it was only in the third stage that the political authorities found it difficult to publicly reverse the decision, in view of the continuing deterioration in employment from 1975 onwards.

This was most clearly seen in the official announcement of a halt to immigration on television in July 1974. The suspension of immigration was accompanied by two five-minute subjects broadcast successively on ORTF's first channel. Marie-Laure Augry's segment begins with a reiteration of the information provided by the government after the Council of Ministers, and continues with an interview with André Postel-Vinay, Secretary of State for Immigrant Workers, who this time finds himself in a position to justify his "new" immigration policy to the media.




Voir vidéo sur youtube

As you can see, there's no mention of "demographic imbalances" or "a new May 1968" on the TV news, which are all arguments found in administrative memos. The employment argument is virtually the only one to be invoked publicly (even though it is barely mentioned in internal government exchanges).

The fact that this public justification focuses mainly on the employment argument must of course be linked to the history of public debates on immigration. Although this issue only came back on the public agenda in the 1970s, the various protagonists involved did not participate in the process "with a blank mind", like "a wolf cub in the middle of a career". In these interactions, governments and journalists of course benefited from a stock of discourse that could be mobilized and accepted, as it had long been sedimented by the history of a nation-state and the various economic crises of the early part of the century.

The argument of unemployment (even if it only increased by a few tenths of a point in 1974) is the one spontaneously presented by this senior civil servant to legitimize the halting of immigration in the eyes of a national community, since the actualization of a divide between nationals and foreigners has most often historically revolved around the question of access to the labor market. By taking up the exclusive explanation of the economic crisis, we run the risk of unwittingly redoubling the division between nationals and foreigners, by duplicating what is initially no more than the public justification for a measure taken (at least within the State) in the name of other arguments.


dijoud mauroy lille.jpg
"Average Frenchman" & "racism of ordinary people"

The book also analyzes how restrictive migration policies are regularly justified by the use of "popular racism" to back up measures justified within the state by diplomatic or traffic control considerations.

Some studies attribute the introduction of restrictive policies to governments' awareness of the "xenophobic potential" of populations, and limit periods of extension of rights for migrant workers to times when the issue of immigration was not publicly debated. It would be more accurate to look closely at how the years 1975-1976 were marked, in contrast to this model, by the concomitant granting of rights to foreign workers and by a major public and mediatized debate to which these agents located within bureaucratic institutional frameworks contributed.
By considering separately, on the one hand, a "xenophobic opinion" that would like to see restrictive policies and, on the other, a government body that would position itself in relation to it, certain analytical models obscure the fact that "social domination always has symbolic effects on the dominant and dominated groups it associates", and that we must never consider separately those who are said to be "racist" from those who designate "racists", that we must never separate those who are said to be "North African" from those who assign individuals to these ethnicizing collectives.

For if, in the 1970s, the supposed "xenophobic potential" of the working classes was able to justify a restrictive immigration policy, it was undoubtedly also because actors were forced, by their position in the field of power, to designate an "average Frenchman", to give meaning to social realities, by linking them to political categories (such as racism), in order to "exist" in their own social space of activity. If a set of processes and social figures staged in the speeches drafted by these government officials have been able to legitimately endow social relations with meaning, it is only because these agents have participated - in a movement of permanent interaction between the state and the political field - in the actualization of the historical relations that a particular mode of domination maintains with the whole of a society.

Among this small panoply of recurrent discourse produced by governments, politicians and senior civil servants to legitimize their decisions on immigration, certain leitmotifs seem to be "self-evident" in France today, so consistently are they put forward that their presuppositions are no longer debated. Such is the case with the unsurpassable horizon of the supposed racism of the "working classes".

"Popular racism": a recurring figure that complements "the crisisFew of the official speeches or political and administrative leaders we met in the course of our research justified the immigration policy pursued in France since the early 1970s solely on the grounds of rising unemployment. As early as 1974, the "economic crisis" theme was rarely used on its own. Justifying the shift in immigration policy in the name of the "mood" of the people, many government officials from this period onwards made the "average Frenchman" the real driving force behind the decisions taken. This typical figure, gripped by an irrational fear of the unknown, was spontaneously racist.

In one of his books, Lionel Stoléru, Secretary of State for Immigrant Workers between 1977 and 1981, distinguishes various types of average Frenchman, the most racist of which is undoubtedly that of rural France:

"The first type of average Frenchman is the Frenchman from rural France, from the era when industrialization was still very localized in France and salaried employment was not widespread. This average Frenchman can still be found in a few corners of deepest France, where a penny is a penny, where matches are kept after use, and where people work hard to save for their old age rather than go on vacation. These French people still believe in traditional values. Regardless of their political leanings, they identify with respect for work, family and country. Work is personal effort, savings, the sense of ownership of land in particular, the positivism of the man for whom each day is worth its trouble. Family means belonging to a clan, to a tribe that you defend and that defends you, even against the tide and against the grain, like the Dominici clan gathered around the patriarch accused of murder. It's also the rejection of foreigners, French people from elsewhere or, a fortiori, immigrants. Patrie is loyalty to the flag, a sense of honor, a taste for order, for the established order, and respect for the law, whether fair or not." (Stoléru 1982)


The "average Frenchman" is sometimes situated in relation to a more or less vague social context, such as rural France in the example above. At other times, however, he or she may be the subject of an even vaguer designation. The "we" or "us" is used, and it's not always clear exactly "who" we're talking about.


Ventriloquists of the ordinary citizen

This ability of governing officials to become ventriloquists of the popular can lead them to go very far in verbalizing racist remarks. Paul Dijoud, Secretary of State for Immigrant Workers in 1976, explains that "the incomprehension of the French stems largely from the way immigration has developed in recent years. The foreign population has grown very rapidly, and the French have had the confused feeling of being subjected to a kind of invasion, and therefore of being dispossessed of their soil. The immigrant would come and take our jobs, our housing... and even our daughters and wives." (Dijoud 1976)

This type of discourse was also very much in evidence during Lionel Stoléru's term of office, when attempts were made to set up 400,000 "forced returns" for Algerians. As early as May 1977, Lionel Stoléru and his chief of staff were aware that, by embarking on such projects, they risked encountering certain opposition in public opinion. His advisors hoped to "compensate" by "highlighting cases of racism". The chief of staff writes for himself in his notebooks: "There will be attacks. We have to compensate with public actions. Pin cases of racism and react if immigrants are mistreated. We need positive action.

As we can see here, in the inner circle of the ministerial cabinet, raising the profile of racism is explicitly conceived as a counterweight to return measures and attempts to reverse migratory flows. A few weeks after this meeting, a "first case of racism" occurred in a supermarket. A security guard hit a "young North African". As Lionel Stoléru's press attaché at the time pointed out in an interview, he immediately went to the scene with his press attaché and a journalist from France Soir:

"We went to this supermarket with Christiane Caron from France Soir... Yes, we had an extremely innovative communication policy.... It's also true with these trips to the provinces... After the trips to the provinces were half manual and half immigration. We did a lot of irrigating of journalists (...) I also remember Paul and Francis going to tea houses, it was exotic. Lionel Stoléru was quite innovative...".

With all the media power their position confers, it's clear that Lionel Stoléru and his advisors are multiplying the visibility of an issue to which public opinion should be paying attention. In this particular context, where the cabinet intended to "pinpoint cases of racism", the destruction of a Malian workers' hostel by the Communist municipality of Vitry, in January 1981, offered a political "window of opportunity" that could not be missed. At a time when the image of the Secretary of State for Immigrant Workers had been seriously tarnished by the Bonnet-Stoléru bills and rumors surrounding plans for forced returns (see below), the event offered an unhoped-for opportunity for Lionel Stoléru to appear moderate in the face of the "racism of the vote" that he felt the Vitry affair revealed.

bottom of page